Next Sunday millions will tune in to see America’s most popular sport culminate in likely the most watched event of the year, and most of them will hardly notice the primed and primped young ladies on the sidelines. Of over 75,000 watching the game at the stadium, many will notice the cheerleaders as they disperse through the crowd during play, or run onto the field during much anticipated commercial breaks, but would many really miss them?
There are currently six NFL teams without cheerleaders, and while it may be no surprise that teams like the Detriot Lions can’t round up a special cheering section after recent seasons, there are some pretty competitive teams without cheerleaders. The Lions are not one of them; still, their owner, William Clay Ford, purposely keeps cheerleaders off the field because today’s NFL cheerleading squads don’t exactly put forth an image that is considered “family friendly,” which is the aim of his franchise (we can save the debate on whether or not grown men crushing each other for 60 minutes of regulation is family friendly for another time). And while I strongly agree that the objectification of women is neither family friendly nor something to support, I do have a problem with keeping cheerleaders off the field, and I also have a problem with the way the NFL treats the ones who are on it.
To be an NFL cheerleader is not easy. Women often have to beat out hundreds of others to get a much sought out spot on the roster. And while the competition is fierce, the payoff is pretty weak. Cheerleaders get paid about $75 per game. With 2 pre-season and 8 regular season home games, that is $750 per year. Clearly being an NFL cheerleader is not a full-time gig, and to those who suspect that many are feeding off their NFL-player boyfriends, there is a strict rule against fraternizing with any players. Most cheerleaders in the NFL have full-time careers or go to school. Many have families. On top of that, cheerleaders must attend two unpaid practices a week, which include weigh-ins that are a determining factor in which ladies will appear in that Sunday’s game.
The cheerleading debate has sparked some controversy in the blogosphere and world of sports commentating; Steve Czaban, a host of ESPN sports talk radio, thinks that NFL cheerleaders get paid what they deserve, “NFL cheerleaders are paid exactly what they are worth. They may even be over-paid. How do I know this? Because the NFL has had no problem filling their cheer squads for this price. Ergo: the price is right. The market has spoken.” This argument seems logical, but let’s not forget we are talking about a multi-billion dollar industry. While no one would expect cheerleaders’ salaries to even begin to approach that of an NFL player, there is no denying that the cheerleaders are indeed talent and entertainment. Perhaps they could be compared more fairly to a team mascot. NFL mascots make anywhere from $23,000 per year plus benefits to upwards of $65,000. They also receive a $10,000 bonus if their team makes it to the Superbowl. For many, the position includes a full-time marketing gig in the team office. If the average cheerleader makes $750 a season, and there are 30 cheerleaders on a squad, the average NFL team spends more on its mascot than its entire cheering squad.
Czaban’s argument that the “market has spoken” may be true. In the world of publishing, for example, there are often so many applicants that publishers are able to hire college educated individuals, some with master’s degrees, for $25,000 to $35,000 a year for an entry level position. The same holds true for broadcasting and teaching at the university level – they are highly competitive fields, but offer low starting salaries. The difference between $25,000 a year and $750 a year is laughable. Even if cheering is intended to be a part time job, it warrants more than its current payout.
If the salary of an NFL cheerleader is not enough argument alone to prove exploitation, perhaps the NFL’s use of their images without compensation can change a few minds. ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook cites a commercial for DirecTV with Peyton Manning in the foreground and a number of NFL cheerleaders in the background. To be sure, Manning collected a large endorsement fee for such an ad, yet the cheerleaders were paid nothing for the use of their images. Easterbrook asked DirecTV about this and they responded that the “company’s licensing agreement with the NFL includes the right to use cheerleader images in promotion,” yet, the images of other employees of the NFL do require payment. Easterbrook continues, “In almost all cases that an NFL player or coach’s image is used in advertising, even if the image is from stock footage, he gets a fee. The legal presumption is usually that any person whose identity can be determined must be paid to have his or her image used in advertising, since use of a person’s image implies endorsement of the product. Recently Woody Allen sued a company that used his likeness in an ad without conferring a fee; the company settled with Allen for $5 million.” So not only is the NFL underpaying cheerleaders, they are using their images to earn more money, without compensating them.
So what is a person to do? What do others do to maintain job stability and to ensure fairness in the workplace? Many unionize. While there have been rumblings of individual cheering teams starting their own unions, these ladies would certainly benefit from a league-wide union. Or perhaps a lawsuit is what’s needed to initiate change. Surely the misdeeds of one of the largest and most profitable institutions in the United States against a group of cheerleaders would be enough to cause a few headlines. Either way, many teams depend on their cheerleaders to kick off chants which will eventually spread around the entire stadium, and as opposed to many others heard in the rowdiest sections, these chants are indeed family friendly. To be sure, skimpy outfits aside, one of the main attributes to any cheering squad is its ability to play by the rules, to keep, or at least encourage, the peace. So while the cheerleaders are certainly playing by the rules, the NFL needs a new gameplan.
Also by Caty DiDonato Anderson: